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Delay Urged for Nuclear Waste Site Plan

November 30, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The General Accounting Office is urging the Bush administration to indefinitely postpone a decision on whether to build a huge, permanent and centralized nuclear waste storage site in the Nevada desert and is raising serious questions about whether it could ever be built as currently conceived.

The remote site beneath Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been eyed by Congress and the Energy Department for the last 20 years as the only candidate for the storage of all nuclear waste generated in the United States. The newly re-energized nuclear power industry, championed by the Bush administration, recently has been predicting that the site could be opened as soon as 2010.

But according to a GAO draft report, the Energy Department "is unlikely to achieve its goal of opening a repository at Yucca Mountain by 2010 and has no reliable estimate of when, and at what cost, such a repository could be opened."

The report presents a challenge to the administration's aggressive schedule, which calls for Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to recommend to President Bush this winter whether to formally designate Yucca Mountain as the site for 78,000 tons of radioactive waste.

Abraham is certain to urge Bush to move ahead with the project, according to government officials and industry sources. But the GAO study has greatly complicated the administration's efforts, particularly because it reflects the views of Bechtel SAIC Co., the private contractor hired by the Energy Department to oversee the project.

The study said Bechtel SAIC recently told the Energy Department that it would take until January 2006 to complete the detailed research and cost estimates and to resolve hundreds of outstanding issues before the administration could responsibly designate the site and then begin the lengthy process of seeking a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"DOE is not ready to make a site recommendation because it does not yet have all of the technical information needed for a recommendation and a subsequent license application," the study said.

The GAO also warned that the plans for Yucca Mountain that officials have been showing to lawmakers and Nevada residents "may not describe the facilities that DOE would actually develop."

Controversy over the proposed underground storage site has persisted for nearly two decades.

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